Posted on May 29, 2023
Years from now, when Chicagoans stroll the Lake Michigan waterfront, they may see the blades of wind turbines glinting on the horizon. Clevelanders could glimpse wind farms over Lake Erie. And cities like Milwaukee and Buffalo could be vying to attract a burgeoning offshore wind industry on the Great Lakes.
That’s the vision some regional leaders have for America’s Third Coast. They see the Midwest’s freshwater seas as 94,000 square miles of untapped potential, boasting consistently strong winds in a region that’s already home to an established manufacturing sector.
Lawmakers in Illinois and Pennsylvania are considering bills this year to promote offshore wind development in the waters off their coasts. In Ohio, a long-debated project to install six turbines on Lake Erie has had its permits upheld by the state Supreme Court, clearing the way for the nation’s first freshwater wind farm.
“This region often gets overlooked as an area that is like a coastal area,” said Carlos Ochoa, ocean program manager with the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators, a forum for state lawmakers. “You’re seeing legislative movement in Great Lakes states where offshore wind wasn’t much of a consideration years ago.”
But the lakes also pose unique challenges, including winter ice cover, insufficient port and shipping infrastructure, and communities that value the coastlines for their natural beauty.
That’s why other regions have moved more quickly. Offshore wind projects are burgeoning on the Atlantic coast, where states have spent years crafting utility requirements and investing in ports and infrastructure. On the Pacific Ocean, states hope new technologies could unlock wind potential in deeper waters.
The Biden administration has committed to reaching 30 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity by 2030, enough to power more than 10 million homes. Some leaders think it’s time for the Great Lakes to be part of that mix.
The American side of the lakes is bordered by Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Each state controls the waters off its coast, extending to the middle of the lake where it reaches a border with the state or Canadian province on the opposite shore.
Many of those states still rely heavily on coal and natural gas to supply their electricity; the eight states bordering the lakes produce a quarter of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.
Meanwhile, according to one federal estimate, the Great Lakes represent one-fifth of the nation’s offshore wind potential.
For all that potential, some critics liken putting wind farms on the Great Lakes to filling the Grand Canyon with solar panels.
“If you’re from Cleveland, Lake Erie is your national park,” said John Lipaj, a board member with the Lake Erie Foundation, an Ohio-based advocacy nonprofit. “I can think of very few people that want to see Lake Erie turn into an industrial wind facility.”
Others, though, think turbines on the horizon could be a point of pride, especially if Great Lakes wind can turn the Rust Belt into a clean energy hub.
“Some people will look at that as a visible indicator that we’re doing big things to fight climate change,” said Jack Darin, director of the Sierra Club’s Illinois chapter.
‘Feels like the future’
Earlier this year, the Illinois House advanced a bill that would direct the state to pursue a pilot project on Lake Michigan, aimed at bringing 150 megawatts of power online by 2030. Offshore wind experts say it’s the strongest measure any Great Lakes state has considered to promote such development.
The proposal also would create a fund that would enable the state to compete for federal infrastructure money, while establishing equity requirements to ensure that workforce and economic opportunities are directed to marginalized communities.
“This is novel and exciting and really feels like the future,” said state Rep. Ann Williams, a Democrat who chairs the Energy and Environment Committee. “There’s a lot of untapped potential offshore.”
The bill has not yet advanced in the Senate, but Williams expressed optimism that it would eventually pass.
Some environmental and labor organizations support the proposal. But at least one group has raised concerns that leasing wind areas to developers would violate the doctrine that the lakes are to be held in trust by the states for public use.
Darin, with the Sierra Club, noted that Illinois sees stronger winds over Lake Michigan than on land. Offshore wind farms also can be built closer to the state’s largest electricity users in the Chicago region.
“There is much more capacity out there over the lake if we learn from this pilot that it can be done safely and effectively,” he said.
Meanwhile, Pennsylvania lawmakers are considering a bill that would establish a lease and royalty system for offshore wind facilities. State Rep. Bob Merski, the bill’s Democratic sponsor, did not respond to a request for comment.
The bill has yet to be heard in committee.
Not there yet
While some state leaders push to get turbines in the water, others believe such discussions are premature. Michigan has no explicit prohibition on offshore wind, but procurement of electricity in the state goes through a competitive bid process. Without significant state incentives, offshore wind simply can’t compete on cost, said James Clift, deputy director with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.
He said the state still has much room to develop wind and solar farms on land, and state leaders are confident Michigan can transition to clean electricity even if offshore wind doesn’t become viable.
Clift said turbines located in nearshore waters also could create conflicts with recreation and tourism, key aspects of Michigan’s identity. Locating wind farms in deeper waters away from the coast would require floating turbines, which are currently being developed for areas off Maine and the Pacific coast.
“Michigan hasn’t closed the door on this forever, but [cost concern] puts it down the road a bit,” he said. “The breakthrough will come with the floating turbine technology. At that point, will the state of Michigan jump in there and look at incentives? I think it’s possible.”
An assessment published earlier this year by the federal National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that Michigan had far more potential than any other state to produce power from Great Lakes wind — an amount many times greater than its annual electricity consumption. But tapping into that wind, for any state, will come with challenges.
Walt Musial, principal engineer with the laboratory, said the lakes don’t yet have ports or ships that can support deployment of offshore wind. Turbines also would have to be designed to withstand the lakes’ ice cover in the winter.
“The question is not just is it a good idea, but is it needed?” he said. “It certainly seems like there’s going to be a challenge [for Great Lakes states] to meet all the decarbonization requirements with just the land-based resources that are available. There’s enough resource out there in the lakes to make a significant contribution in this regard.”
Still, he said, offshore wind in the lakes is a long way from being commercially viable.
The federal analysis produced by Musial and others found that New York had the third-most potential to generate power on the lakes. The state has invested heavily in developing wind power on the Atlantic Ocean, and officials recently spent 18 months exploring the feasibility of placing turbines on Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. But the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority concluded that the state should hit pause on those ambitions.
“At present, Great Lakes wind does not offer a unique, critical, or cost-effective contribution toward the achievement of New York’s Climate Act goals,” the agency said in a statement summarizing its conclusions.
Ohio could go first
The first test case for offshore wind in the lakes is the Icebreaker Wind project in Ohio, a six-turbine pilot project planned in Lake Erie off the coast of Cleveland. Last year, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that state regulators followed the law in granting the project’s permit. Backers are now working to line up capital and find a buyer for the wind farm’s power.
“We have the legal issues all out of the way to get the windmills into the water, it’s just going to be a matter of how fast we can move on the business side,” said Jade Davis, senior vice president of external affairs for the Port of Cleveland, which has worked closely with the development corporation leading the project.
Davis said offshore wind has the potential to revitalize manufacturing in the region. Early projects like Icebreaker could help establish the supply chains and workforce that will bring costs down for future projects, he said.
But the plan has also garnered opposition. Lipaj, with the Lake Erie Foundation, accused backers of inflating the job estimates that Icebreaker Wind will create. Those supporters, he said, have touted electricity projections that would require a massive buildout of wind farms beyond the initial six turbines.
“There’s a lot of opposition from the public for building 1,500 wind turbines in Lake Erie,” he said. “And [six turbines] isn’t going to do anything for the environment.”
Some groups have tried to stop the project for fear it could harm migratory birds, which was one of the main legal challenges in the lawsuit threatening the permit. But other environmental groups say offshore wind presents fewer ecological risks than onshore renewable development.
“There’s so much potential space and opportunity presented in responsible development of offshore wind,” said Nolan Rutschilling, managing director of energy policy with the nonprofit Ohio Environmental Council. “You can really take advantage of the natural environment in a way that’s not intrusive or harmful to the lakes or wildlife.”